7 July, 2022


Irrationalities Of The Road: Is Seemingly Endless Mayhem Our Lot?

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

Rather than indulge in the tried (tired?) and true practice of trying to sum up the events of the year past, let me deal with something that has bedevilled me but of which I have not spoken at any length in the past.  I will leave it to sociologists or the similarly skilled to draw deeper conclusions from what I am about to relate.

So here are a few notes about running the gauntlet of the Sri Lankan highway!


It is a part of the road culture of this country that not only does a bigger and more robust vehicle give you first dibs on privilege on the road but the only way you could seek to compensate for your diminutive size was by installing a very loud horn, preferably two of them and, ideally, a klaxon which promised anyone subjected to its blare significant hearing loss!

One of the terms that I coined in description of this state of affairs and which made more and more sense as the days since my return went by was “horn conditioning.”

Let me try to explain.

In spite of the fact that Sri Lanka since the late ‘seventies’ has spawned thousands (millions?) more motorized vehicles on its highways, those daring to walk anywhere in proximity to their brethren driving around do not seem to have developed anything resembling “road sense.”

The “Horn-conditioning” of Sri Lankan pedestrians is a very interesting phenomenon.  A pedestrian will cross the road obliquely with a clear view of oncoming traffic from one direction at least, watch a vehicle approaching them and keep going until or unless that vehicle’s horn is sounded. This is one of the mysteries of the Sri Lankan highway!  When the horn is sounded, the perfectly-well-sighted Sri Lankan will respond in a manner that suggests that it was an absolute “given” that the sounding of the horn was essential for the pedestrian to so much as acknowledge the presence of a vehicle that could possibly have run him over!

Motorists will do the most outlandish things on the road.  Large lorries will reverse right across the paths of vehicles approaching from both directions in the belief, seemingly, that anyone colliding with them will come off second best and therefore will, with a screeching of brakes, come to a complete stop in order to permit an arrogant lorry driver to change direction using the entire road to achieve his intent.  And it is not just lorry drivers who habitually do this.  Motorcyclists and three wheeler drivers engage in the most bizarre of “u-turns” and it can hardly be because they expect anyone colliding with them to come off second best!  The motivation, apart from absolute stupidity or a death wish, for this behaviour is very hard to comprehend.  It might also be driven by absolute ignorance of the basic rules of the road.  I suspect that, often it is a combination of all or several of the above!

“Orthodox” overtaking seems to be the choice of anyone seeking to pass a vehicle when that vehicle has given clear indication of turning right by having its turn signals on and moving as far to the right as is possible prior to making the turn.  At such times, it is most likely that the “overtaker” will, after observing the flashing right turn signal etc., choose to overtake (on the right) as at high a speed as possible, as if it is the most natural and logical thing to do.  The only thing possibly more inexplicable in the matter of overtaking habits is when the “passer” seeks to pass a left-turning vehicle on the inside.  The fact that passing on the inside is an absolute “no-no” in most societies where motor vehicles occupy the road appears not to fizz on road users in Sri Lanka and I have seen, not just motorbikes but even buses indulge (or seek to indulge) in this practice.  Go figure!

The “You should be able to see me because I can see you” syndrome

Sri Lankan highways and roads like most in developing countries carry very heavy pedestrian traffic sans lighting that would be the case in such circumstances in a “developed” country.  The fact that dark clothing – both shirt and trousers – are often favoured by those choosing to walk on or across our roads, particularly in the more congested cities, it seems, does not help the unsuspecting motorist when the pedestrian, clothed from head to toe in black, chooses to cross the road in the path of oncoming vehicular traffic, away from the nearest pedestrian crossing, away from any overhead street light that might (miracle of miracles!) be in evidence and when there are all kinds of other distractions such as stray dogs, zig-zagging three-wheelers etc.  The only explanation I have been able to come up with for this inexplicable behaviour is that said pedestrian believes that because he can see the oncoming vehicle with its lights on very clearly, the person behind the wheel of said vehicle cannot but see him!  Not smart?  I leave it to your judgement!

Finally let me speak to just one of the many peculiarities of our traffic police.

If one has the misfortune to be following another vehicle in heavy traffic, leaving a safe enough space between the two vehicles, the chances are that you will be confronted by an irate policeman who will insist, by vigourous gestures that you “tailgate” the vehicle in front of you and then slap you with a charge if you do not comply.

Even though I promised at the beginning of this piece not to draw any conclusions from all of this irrational and, often, illegal and dangerous behaviour, it’s hard not to see a connection between it and the social and political climate that prevails in the Miracle of Asia today.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I recently saw a video clip of traffic conditions in the 1970’s with all those double deckers, morris minors and ford prefects on the road. Then too it seemed much worse with vehicles being driven on the wrong side and pedestrians crossing the road and dodging the traffic. Off course those days the speeds where much less as well as the traffic. The cops looked pretty wayward in shorts waving their hands around. I think these days things have improved and a little horning is required at times to drive in some sense.

  • 0

    “it’s hard not to see a connection between it and the social and political climate that prevails in the Miracle of Asia today.” – BINGO!!!

    Yes, I do believe that people get the politicians and a system they deserve. Bashing politicians and “the system” is a great past time of all Sri Lankan’s (specially with a glass in hand!), but no one bothers to wonder if the politicians and “the system” is nothing but a mirror image of the people themselves.

  • 0

    Emil – Here’s something to add to your observations – http://javajones.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/driving-in-sri-lanka/

  • 0

    All I can say about the video clip you saw is that it was totally deceiving. I drove in the country from the mid-50s to the early-70s and the traffic chaos you encounter today just did not exist. For instance, it would take me a maximum of 2.5 hours to reach Colombo from my home. Today I would be lucky to make the same journey in 4 hours! The thuggery that exists on the road did not exist in times past and all the police seem to do is look for motorists (NOT BUS DRIVERS!) cutting white lines while the lunatics who cause death and destruction on our roads go totally unchecked.
    Ruki Herath:
    I am still optimist enough to believe that the vast majority of Sri Lankans are decent people. However, they have been crushed into subservience by circumstances that hardly need repetition and it will take the minority who still have the will to provide the leadership needed for change.

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